Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
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A mining family, National Coal Board photoRoyal Court Diary

Rehearsal logbook by Barry Hanson of three D H Lawrence plays in repertoire at the Royal Court till April 20, 1968

(Barry Hanson, author of this article, is a production assistant to Peter Gill on the three Lawrence plays.)

The plays to be presented are A Collier's Friday Night, The Daughter-in-Law and The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd.

August, 1965

A Collier's Friday Night is premiered as a Sunday night production without decor for the English Stage Society.

March, 1967

The Daughter-in-Law, also directed by Peter Gill, is a mainbill production. The interest created by these two productions and the reviews they receive explode the idea that Lawrence, the dramatist, may be safely ignored.

The idea of the current season of plays dates from this time. The choice of the third play, The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd, is made for its similarity in feeling and period to the other two. The plan is to form a small company to cover the three plays in a seven-week rehearsal period. This is not only to gain a financial saving but is done with the feeling that the best start to working towards a uniform style for the season is made with a small company, where most of the artists appear in at least two of the productions.

The scope for research on Lawrence, mining, the period, and documentary background to the three plays is enormous. For some months before the start of rehearsals, the director and his two assistants re-read all the plays, the usual books of criticism and a number of novels — Sons and Lovers especially.

At the same time, Shirley Matthews researches mining and social conditions of England prior to the First World War. One of the really exciting finds is a collection of photographs in the archives of the National Coal Board. These photos — by the Rev Cobb — are a brilliant record of the life of the miners Lawrence wrote about. They will be used in the programme.

Summer, 1967

Visits are made to Nottingham, Eastwood and Bestwood. It is known that Lawrence set these plays in homes he knew intimately. They are still there. The house where A Collier's Friday Night is set used to belong to his cousin. The house for The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd is found derelict in the exact relation to the Old Brinsley Pit as described in the stage directions at the beginning of the play. About the setting for The Daughter-in-Law we are less certain. By chance we find a house that seems to be right in every way, but it is not until one assistant reads the short story, Annie and Fanny — which is an early exploration of theme of The Daughter-in-Law — where the exact address is given, that we discover we had been right.

Quite simply, we want as full and detailed information as possible about the homes where Lawrence had set his plays. Particularly important, we want to try and stay close to the size and layout of the rooms Lawrence knew. The four sets that we have now for the three plays, designed by John Gunter, are, in fact, only very slightly larger than their originals.

To get three productions on after only a seven-week rehearsal period is going to mean simultaneous rehearsal whenever possible. The two assistants are each given particular responsibility for one production so that it is kept in rehearsal, while Peter Gill works on a third. Rehearsals are divided into four-day work periods.

With one exception — Michael Coles as Luther — all the cast of The Daughter-in-Law have been in the Royal Court production of 1967, so, initially, it will be possible to allot less rehearsal time to this play than to the others.

January 8-13

Rehearsal room: the Parish Hall. Like all church hallsspartan but adequate, with the remnants of Christmas decoration hanging in forlorn abandon on walls and cupboards. Quick, rough blocking. Since the design of Collier is a near exact replica of Lawrence's house, space is scarce. The actors mention this but the director is not sympathetic, since the Lawrences' had, in fact, less space than the designer has generously allowed the actors. Half-way through the first act Peter Gill announces that he intends to insert a section from Sons and Lovers (regarding family affection) but that he is not going to tell anybody.

On the third day the Collier cast have familiarised themselves with their surroundings. They have accepted the physical limitations of the house, know where the kitchen is and Anne Dyson (Mrs Lambert) is growing increasingly concerned with her properties, which accumulate daily. Now the delicate synchronisation between action and word required by naturalism becomes apparent. The actors are told to believe in the physical world. Gill insists on bowls and baking tins being put down and picked up for their own value. This is difficult. In the first ten minutes of the play Anne has to butter the toast, heat the teapot, put the tea in, warm it, mash the tea, pour the tea out, serve a full meal, eat her own, serve the toast, clear the table, grease the baking tins, knead the dough to bake bread, and put the bread in the oven: the director wants this done without any rush. We are told that when running the scenes `they must not get away with anything'. At the end of the fourth day the business is mechanical, but meaningless. Exercises are to be set. There has been refreshingly little time spent on character-probing. But now we see how the work is to be done. Gill insists on the actors listening to their parts and giving words, sentences and actions their own value.

In the last two days of this week The Daughter-in-Law. A problem worrying a number of the company at the first reading is that of accent and dialect. The Daughter-in-Law is a dialect play. The language has a form and rules of its own that can no more be ignored than those of Shakespearean blank verse. Instead of applying the accent and lessons learned from a dialect record it is decided to try to get the company to adopt a neutral stance, so that the accent emerges through listening to the author's cadences rather than through applied vowel sounds. Time after time during these rehearsals they are made to simply say the lines and listen to the rhythm of the scene and consider its place in the wider context of an action or short scene.

An improvisation is used to explore moments in the childhood of the sons, Luther and Joe. We set up a number of short scenes to build a history to the relationships. Putting the children to bed, a first cigarette, Mrs Gascoigne talking about her family, those that have grown up and left home, and those that have died. Victor Henry and Michael Coles as the brothers, aged 8 and 10 respectively, re-enacted the childhood scene with Anne Dyson as their mother. Victor `told tales' on his brother. With his hands cupped round his mouth, refusing to speak except very privately and intimately to his Mum, Victor related what Luther had been up to. This was done brilliantly, except that what he was saying to Anne was so shocking that she was eventually forced to stop listening.

January 14-20

The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd. This is a strange and disturbing play. It is a study of a failing marriage and of a love affair which never starts. In the last scene of the play the miners bring home to Mrs Holroyd the body of her husband, killed by a freak accident in the pit. The acting of the intermediate scenes forcibly reminds one of the Moors Murders in the first instance. Gill keeps saying how disturbed he is by the play, especially the last scene in which the wife and grandmother have to wash the dead body of Holroyd. But we think he's enjoying it.

The first full company meeting was held on the Wednesday of this week. All Deirdre Clancy's designs are on show and are supported by prints of slides taken down the pits in Eastwood by the local vicar at the time Lawrence's father worked there. There are only 17 actors involved in the three plays.

January 22-27

We now move over to Petyt House in Chelsea — a beautiful rehearsal room: everyone now feels happier. The work on Collier proceeds and it now takes shape, although with more problems. Victor Henry, Anne Dyson and John Barrett are remarkable in that they play emotion truthfully and immediately. Beware! The text is suffering. From now on the assistants are watching to see if any of the words are altered. The director will have every single word written by Lawrence spoken. Watch Victor Henry, who has the confidence to get away with a scene which he has mentally completely rewritten. Anne Dyson has often completed the emotional meaning without actually saying the words, and John Barrett can't get the words out if he doesn't mean them when he actually says them, which is marvellous since the observation is so unerringly truthful. However, this is all going to need drilling.

During this week an exercise with George Eliot and her novel Middlemarch in order to explore the relationship between Ernest and Maggie. Jenifer Armitage (Maggie) reads a Methodist hymn to Victory Henry, who doesn't like it and says so, giving reasons. Jenifer attacks him for his inability to appreciate honest truths beautfully restated in the hymn (this improvisation is between the two of them and has nothing to do with the characters in the play). Victor continues his argument but is slightly nonplussed since, as the character Ernest, he arrogantly displays his intellectual superiority to Maggie without being challenged. The result is that the passionate side of Maggie is given an existence which had, previously, been dormant. Next, Jenifer reads the introduction to Middlemarch to Ernest; the beautiful prose seems to add to the separateness of this delicate scene in comparison with the rest.

The first four days of the week have been rewarding, the characters are dignified yet the sequence of events is still escaping everyone. The trouble is that in this play nothing develops except the evening, the characters are full of their own existence and remain so until the final curtain.

The Daughter-in-Law is run the last two days of the week. Mike Coles is the only newcomer to the cast and the play is in a good state. At the end of the week the director is very concerned that Anne Dyson may have merged all three parts she plays into one; but his fear soon vanishes.

January 29 — February 3

Holroyd Week. The play has a formal narrative structure, therefore from this point of view it's easier to control than Collier. But the relationships within this are strange and difficult. We know nothing about Mrs Holroyd's would-be lover except that he is an electrician on the mines. Mark Jones here plays truthfully but with an amount of reserve which makes the pace threatening. But it seems right. Mike Coles is well in command of Holroyd, and Judy Parfitt leading superbly. We note that the actors serve the text here better than in the other two plays. It is the last part of the play which causes the trouble. The final scene in which we hear of the disaster at the pit ends with the washing of the dead body. Judy Parfitt and Anne Dyson are worked up into such a state of uncontrollable emotion over this that they are physically unable to perform the operation, and indeed it's a terrifying scene.

The director understands the problem but with his total brief in the physical world he insists that they pull themselves together so they can get on with the task. All complaints from Judy and Anne are treated as excuses. `Come on, ladies, you're washing a body, and you want to make sure it's clean, and you have to speak the lines, you can't avoid it.'

Then he goes over the scene in detail with Judy and Anne — Michael Coles lies dead on the floor, unwashed. And they set to again, but with no more success. Then Gill breaks it down into a sequence of units of physical work. Then he makes them mime this whilst saying the lines quite impersonally. Eventually Michael Coles is blacked-up and the scene starts again, but this time without words. The two women simply wash his body, concentrating only on the physical action. This affects all those watching in various ways. At first it looks sad and revolting: everyone empathises with the two women except Gill, who has now got beyond that stage and is working towards the finished ritual. `Look, ladies, you wouldn't weep at a dead body like that if you saw one, I tell you.'

The trouble is that Anne and Judy are crying because of each other. Finally Gill is able to command the kind of impersonal efficiency he requires from them at this stage. The text is now married to the action and the whole process has the constant quiet interruptions to give the washing the full time it needs. All attention is now focused on the relentless ritual of the washing, and by the end of the week the actresses are playing superbly their emotion is now controlled and the job in hand assumes its proper importance. But it's true to say that it's a scene that no one in the rehearsals has become hardened to.

The week ends with a dreadful run of The Daughter-in-Law in the theatre. The pace has vanished; a depression has set in. The immediate corollary to this is that single words, and even whole phrases, are blurred over by a genial carelessness. Passionless, forced and muffed. God send Sunday!

February 5-10

We are now in the Scala Theatre. Immense and frightening. An assistant has been rehearsing The Daughter-in-Law during the last week, although Gill's comments during the course of the day would belie this. We recall the affliction of last Saturday's Daughter-in-Law. They have improved over the week but the spirit has gone. Why don't they prepare their performances on stage?

The next day at the Scala. A terrifying backcloth in pink, probably used for Peter Pan or Cinderella, envelopes the little Collier company. This has been ordered by Peter to cheer us all up. His sense of humour has never deserted him. However, things are slightly better. The director works nervously and with tremendous speed. There is very little wasted discussion in any of these rehearsals and by the end of the week Collier is in a fit state for some real work to start.

February 11-24

The last two weeks of rehearsal. In the first three days we run all three plays. These are probably the most encouraging days en masse. Technically they are in very good shape, and the performances good. Monday morning starts with a passing-the-object improvisation, one of William Gaskill's lessons. The actors have to imagine an object and pass it on to the next person, who has to turn it into something else without thinking. They sit in a circle and the objects change round. The important thing about this exercise is to get the actors to naturally take what is given to them and use it, rather than any cleverness, as an occupational mime. One that is particularly marvellous is where Anne Dyson passes a baby to Christine Hargreaves (Nellie), who turns it into a dog on a lead: she passes the lead to Mark Jones, who turns it into a long rope.

The second exercise is to play the whole of the first scene without words. No pig-mime is allowed, no beams or grimaces to substitute for absent speeches. Amazingly quickly, the actors are playing the scene very well, relating to each through their separate physical actions, easily preserving the flow of the scene through its different moods. When the text is used in the run-through in the afternoon, the physical flow is right; not tidy and tentative but meaningful in its own right. Then we do a section with Victor and Anne in slow motion which is marvellously funny as well as profitable. Then the return of Ernest's sister, Nellie, done at the pace of an old comic film. This work focuses the actor's energies into sustaining a physical mood throughout the scene. Its clarity and exaggeration make him more aware of his presence and that of his partners.

Gill constantly questions the actors about the sequence of the play. He regards it as important that they should be really aware of the kind of time they exist in. For instance, Judy Parfitt and Anne Dyson in Holroyd must, as actresses, not characters, be aware of the precise way in which the news of Holroyd's death is got to them and who is involved in it and at what time. There is nothing academic in this; it simply makes the actors more `related'. Another almost daily piece of work is to turn on an actor and ask him to recreate the background of his character, answering questions from Gill quickly and fluently about the other characters. This is particularly valuable in Holroyd where, at the death of the husband, four members of the mining community suddenly appear on stage for a short time.

The Daughter-in-Law follows on Tuesday-a very good run.

The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd has, in fact, increased in power, the last scene having a shattering effect on its small audience. Judy and Anne play excellently. An interesting note after the run-on the relationships between Mrs Holroyd and Blackmore. Up until this time Judy had been playing with a remarkably passionate control over the events of the play. Gill realises that Mrs Holroyd was more a medium through which the emotion of the play passes: she must, from now on, not take as much responsibility for her actions or inject emotion into the part. On the other hand, Mark Jones must now draw his performance out and take over this responsibility for their relationship. The truth which he has played unerringly must now become `observed'.

Last days

In the last week much of the improvised work is carried on and Peter develops a passion for hymn singing (Methodist) during the mornings to prevent spiritual sloth. After the last run-through of A Collier an observer says she feels that most of the women are too emancipated in their performances. Peter shows annoyance at the way Jenifer (Maggie) seems not to have committed herself today. Peter asks if she has any opinions about her state in life — again in the dangerous manner of before, half as the character, half as herself. He introduces a dialectic on Female Suffrage: Jenifer becomes more angry and spirited in defence of `Votes for Women', which, on the director's recommendation, she shouts to the gallery, obviously enjoying the experience: the remaining female members of the cast have by this time begun to talk and are led into the debate. At this point Peter launches his exercise with the dexterity of a true hustler. He gets the women into a `Die Muttor' phalanx centre stage, shouting their slogan, and the men in the auditorium to provide an unsympathetic audience: he tries to implicate the stage management but fails: the cleaners in the stalls bar are having their break and complain about the volume of noise since silence had been required for the last fortnight. The situation is ripe. The actors in the audience behave uncouthly, unsympathetically and abusively. Jeering, yelling obscenities and laughing. The women are growing all the while in nobility; they play first as themselves and then as the characters in the play. The director asks them if they'd always used the vote when they had an opportunity. They had. He asks the men. Only half of them had. Then the women demand that the situation be reversed and that the men stand on the stage and face questioning — the point of the improvisation had been made: we can't, won't — it isn't required of us. We had the vote in 1906; they hadn't and that, to a greater or lesser extent, was their social situation. A good piece of work.

Probably what is finally impressive about Peter Gill's work is its total commitment; he loves the writer whose work he is presenting and will not allow any short-changing: the experience of the plays has to have more than just a bare approximation in the lives of his actors, and he'll pursue, bully and inspire them with an intense and generous energy to this end. What he teaches about acting is physical, practical and immediate.


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